Monday, August 6, 2012

Article: Domestic violence often hard to understand

I heard it almost as soon as the (Mansfield) News Journal reported the disappearance of Lynn Jackenheimer: Why did she go back?

In the newsroom, we were hearing rumors long before we were able to confirm and report anything. We were hearing that her son's father had beaten her before, that they'd split up. That she'd agreed to go on vacation with him because she'd thought maybe he'd changed.

He came home. She didn't.

Why did she go back?

I used to ask that question, because from the perspective of someone who has never experienced domestic violence, it's a fairly logical thing to ask. Going back to a man who has come close to killing you sounds ... well, foolish. At best.

None of the men in my life would ever hit me. Ever. If I thought there was any chance they would, they wouldn't be in my life.

It's easy for me to say that, though, because I'm one of the lucky ones. I could say it's because I'm smart or because I have too much self-respect to ever end up in that sort of situation, but I'd be kidding myself. I'm just lucky.

I'm lucky that I was born into a family where domestic violence is considered an outrage, not a fact of life.

I'm lucky my husband was born into that sort of family, too.

And I'm very, very lucky I found him.

I know that because some very brave women told me so. Some of these women were extremely intelligent. Some came from good families -- families like mine, with no history of domestic abuse. Most were hard-working, well-educated and just in general wonderful human beings. They all were victims of domestic violence.

When I was in charge of the reporting staff at a small-town paper, we covered five domestic violence murders in less than a year. At least one of the victims had just moved back in with her husband. She'd been beaten so badly, so many times; she had been through so much. She had been living at a domestic violence shelter and had finally broken free of him.

But she went back, and by the end of the weekend, she was dead.

Why did she go back?

In the wake of those murders, I got to know several members of a community group dedicated to ending domestic violence. They tried to help me understand.

For one thing, you have to consider the children. Most single moms can't come close to providing for their children the way two parents can. We hear how much better it is for children to be raised in a two-parent household.

Being out on your own with absolutely nothing -- no clothes, no food, no money -- is terrifying. Abusers isolate their victims, leaving them with no job, no prospects and, most importantly, no support system.

What would you do if taking a few punches meant your children wouldn't go hungry? Which is worse: the known or the unknown?

Then there are societal pressures. In some places, to some people, it's still considered acceptable for a man to beat his wife. If that shocks you, consider yourself among the fortunate.

Children who watch one parent batter another learn those roles. A son learns to control and manipulate. A daughter learns to blame herself for making her man so angry.

It's one thing to be told it's not your fault. Believing it is an entirely different matter.

I never actually met the woman who taught me the most. She was a frantic, tearful voice on the telephone.

She called to complain because one of our stories had mentioned there was a domestic violence shelter in the county. We hadn't said where it was, mind you. We merely reported it existed. We wanted to help people, not endanger them.

This woman was terrified.

"He'll find me," she said. "Now that he knows there's a shelter, he'll figure out I'm here, and he'll find me. He'll kill me."

At first, I thought she was being ridiculous. But the longer we talked, the more she told me about what her husband had put her through, the more I understood.

He beat her. He stalked her. He made her life a waking nightmare. But it wasn't because he hated her: It was because he loved her.

I think that's the hardest thing for me to comprehend. At the heart of these situations are often two people who love each other very much.

The victims might know they're in danger. They might know it's not their fault. They might be on their way to building a new life. But I think that sometimes, something in a woman's heart of hearts tells her that if she can just love her abuser enough, everything will change. Everything will be all right.

The abusers might be sick, twisted monsters, but many of them seem to think they're showing their love.

A man who murdered his wife and a friend in cold blood made a deal with a reporter. Read my poems, the murderer asked. You and your boss, read my poems. Then I'll talk to you.

I was the boss. I read the poems he had written in his jail cell. They were all about how much he loved the woman he'd gunned down, about how sorry he was, and about how she'd done him wrong by leaving.

I wish with all my heart we'd passed on that deal.

So, why did Lynn Jackenheimer go back?

I don't know. I don't understand. I doubt anyone ever will. I don't know why any woman ever made that decision.

But I know those women had reasons. Good reasons.

And if I don't understand, it's just because I'm lucky.

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